Saturday, October 30, 2004

Those pesky litmus tests

And so we have come full cycle: Brooks today is back in pompously tautological, it-is-thus-as-it-hath-never-been, universal common-sense pronouncements mode, with a column entitled "The Osama Litmus Test" regarding, you guessed it, today's OBL videotape. Brooks's enlightened analysis? Well, it goes something like this: "This proves Osama Bin Laden is not a nuisance! Contrary to the malicious distortion of John Kerry's views which I have just implied, without actually stating."

It's something of a relief to see that after a series of columns in which he showed off his mildly perceptive side, Brooks today is back to raving idiot mode. The column today is so weird that it takes some effort to try and figure out exactly what Brooks is saying, if anything. But let's at least give it a try.

Essentially, Brooks is arguing that because Osama Bin Laden released a videotape in which he said a bunch of nasty things about the United States and bragged, yet again, about having caught the US Government napping on 9/11...geez, I just got stuck again. I started the sentence with "because", and now I'm supposed to follow with the "thus" part of the statement, but I just find it really hard to figure out what the hell Brooks is trying to say. As near as I can figure it, this is the idea: we saw OBL on TV, and he looked like a very, very bad man. And the most important thing about our future president is that he prove to us that, "deep in his gut" (YUCK! Can we declare a freaking moratorium on use of the intestinal tract in political rhetoric? I'm gonna get a perforation here!), he understands just how bad a man OBL is.

Aside from scheduling an appearance on the Daily Show to dismember a realistic blood-spurting OBL life-sized doll with a sharpened crowbar, I am not sure how much more either candidate can do to reinforce the American people's confidence in the sincerity of their OBL-loathing. I also do not see what in God's name this has to do with the question of which candidate will make a better president. It seems to me that to elect someone based on their demonstration of the deepness of their hatred of America's enemies (regardless of whether or not they can accurately identify those enemies) is a good way to wind up with, say, Alan Keyes as president. Brooks:

"Remember when John Kerry told Matt Bai of The Times Magazine that he wanted to reduce the terrorists to a nuisance? Kerry vowed to mitigate the problem of terrorism until it became another regrettable and tolerable fact of life, like gambling, organized crime and prostitution."

And? Is there anyone in the US who would object to reducing terrorism to the state where it was no more bothersome than gambling, organized crime and prostitution? Incidentally, 2 out of 3 of those items are seen as top-flight entertainment by a significant percentage of Americans, rather than as regrettable facts of life. Maybe all 3, if you count "The Sopranos". Careful, David - you've already lost New Jersey, you don't want to lose Nevada too.

"Well, the Osama bin Laden we saw last night was not a problem that needs to be mitigated."

He wasn't? I do not understand what you are saying. The problem of terrorism does not need to be mitigated? Terrorism is just fine? I am not trying to be cute, here. Brooks is saying one of two things: either that terrorism is just fine, or that it doesn't need to be mitigated - it needs to be entirely eradicated. But he never comes out and says the latter, because if he did he'd get himself into a quandary: like everybody else, George W. Bush included, he knows terrorism can't actually be entirely eradicated. It can only be...mitigated. But then he'd have no article.

"He was not the leader of a movement that can be reduced to a nuisance."

I don't know what he is saying here. This is a negative proposition which is clearly intended to lead to some positive proposition, but I cannot figure out what the positive proposition will be. The best guess is that it should be something like "He is instead the leader of a movement that..." What? Nothing there. Brooks doesn't actually have a lear conception of what Al Qaeda is; he just leaves it blank. That way it's more useful as a protean all-purpose scary campaign bugaboo.

"Here was this monster who killed 3,000 of our fellows showing up on our TV screens, trying to insert himself into our election, trying to lecture us on who is lying and who is telling the truth. Here was this villain traipsing through his own propaganda spiel with copycat Michael Moore rhetoric about George Bush in the schoolroom, and Jeb Bush and the 2000 Florida election.

Here was this deranged killer spreading absurd theories about the American monarchy and threatening to murder more of us unless we do what he says.

One felt all the old emotions. Who does he think he is, and who does he think we are?"

Actually, no. I didn't feel any of the same emotions I felt on Sept. 11. Only an idiot who had spent the last 3 years neither studying nor thinking would feel exactly the same emotions. What I felt was curiosity. Where is OBL? What is his current role in the universe of Islamic terrorism? Are the vague demands which he outlined in this tape - basically the withdrawal of American troops and other organiations from the Islamic world - in fact representative of the goals of Islamic violent political movements generally? Could radical political Islam ever be brought to the point where its demands did become concrete political ones, and where deals could be made and enforced with radical Islamic leaders?

Brooks's rhetoric evinces a kind of hysterical fear of penetration - "trying to insert himself into our election," e.g. I guess I just am not that freaked out by the idea of people I loathe trying to participate in the American political sphere of discourse. Hell, I can't get Pat Robertson to shut up either.

"One of the crucial issues of this election is, Which candidate fundamentally gets the evil represented by this man? Which of these two guys understands it deep in his gut - not just in his brain or in his policy statements, but who feels it so deep in his soul that it consumes him?"

Append to Yuck: Even More Yuck! "deep in his gut - not just in his brain" -- STOP WITH THE GRODY ANATOMICAL STUFF! I know Christians are all into this body-of-our-lord shit, and I know Bush is God's chosen leader on Earth, but the rest of us DON'T NEED TO HEAR IT! I feel perfectly capable of voting without knowing anything about either candidate's digestive tracts or medulla oblongatas.

On a substantial plane: Why should I care whether a candidate is so fixated on how evil Osama Bin Laden is that it "consumes him"? Actually, would it really be a good idea to vote for a candidate who is pathologically obsessed with a thirst for revenge? Has American political discourse really come to this?

"On Milwaukee television, he used the video as an occasion to attack the president: "He didn't choose to use American forces to hunt down Osama bin Laden. He outsourced the job." Kerry continued with a little riff from his stump speech, "I am absolutely confident I have the ability to make America safer."

Even in this shocking moment, this echo of Sept. 11, Kerry saw his political opportunities and he took 'em. There's such a thing as being so nakedly ambitious that you offend the people you hope to impress."

Shut UP! Shut UP! (whap-whap) The issue of whether or not President Bush committed enough resources to Afghanistan to capture OBL and eliminate al-Qaeda, rather than getting distracted by the big juicy lollipop of Baghdad, is one of the clearest pointed issues in this election. It serves as a referendum on whether President Bush "gets it": whether he gets that terrorism is a decentralized, networked, internet-age phenomenon which breeds and multiplies in the free-flowing trade and information currents and weakened states of the globalized economy; whether he gets that Afghanistan was thus always MORE dangerous than Iraq, not less; whether he has any idea who Osama Bin Laden is and how to fight him. I don't fucking care how much Bush hates OBL; what I care about is whether he has a clue as to how to fight him. John Kerry has been hammering on this point throughout the campaign. To suggest that because OBL made a videotape and sent it to a network (How dare he! The gall! This is a second national tragedy - we must observe a moment of silence, except, of course, for the Bush campaign) John Kerry should stop talking about the fact that Bush let him get away IS in fact shameless, shameless, naked electioneering, of a disgusting and putrid and vile sort, and only a completely intellectually dishonest hack would be capable of formulating such an idea.

"When we rely on allies everywhere else around the world, that's multilateral cooperation, but when Bush does it in Afghanistan, it's "outsourcing." In Iraq, Kerry supports using local troops to chase insurgents, but in Afghanistan he is in post hoc opposition."

This little paragraph verges on cogency for a moment. The key here, of course, is the difference between "insurgents" and "Osama Bin Freaking Laden". It's one thing to take advantage of local political legitimacy to suppress insurgents in general; it's another thing entirely, when you think you have the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks cornered, to deputize a posse of half-trained locals with their own political interests, rather than dropping in a giant honking division of American regulars to make goddamned sure we get the guy. But we didn't have a division of American regulars; we were getting ready to invade Iraq, so we could fail to find any WMD and open up all the bunkers full of explosives to looters.

"This is why Kerry is not cleaning Bush's clock in this election. Many people are not sure that he gets the fundamental moral confrontation."

Many people must really be incredibly stupid. Do they think John Kerry thinks OBL is an okay guy? That he's gotten a bum rap? What exactly is it that George Bush "gets"? That a nation founded on the principle of government of, for, and by the people is morally superior to a bloodthirsty mass murderer who deliberately targets and slaughters thousands of innocent civilians purely in order to score a political point? Gee, what a piercing insight.

The only content to the claim that George Bush "gets it" is the assertion of a kind of nakedly fascist identification of the soul of the nation, and the souls of citizens, with that of the leader. It is not okay for Brooks to use this kind of language. It isn't. It isn't okay to say he "gets it" without saying what it is he is supposed to "get". It isn't okay to suggest that whether a leader understands the world and proposes intelligent policies is less important than whether he "gets it". That is the language of fascism. Down that road lie endless warfare and ultimate defeat.

"We are revealed by what we hate."

Who said that? I think it was Goering, right? "When someone uses the word 'civilization', I reach for my revolver. We are revealed by what we hate." Oh no, wait. It was David Brooks.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Also Sprach Brooks

Today we have yet another guise of the master: Brooks as Dave Barry. Or perhaps Art Buchwald is the better analogy. I personally find these columns intensely irritating; Brooks is no professional humorist, and his talent for screwball comedy is not the reason why the New York Times decided to give him all those column inches twice a week. So it kind of feels like a ripoff. But in general I find op-ed pages have been giving humor much too much space over the past decade; I find Maureen Dowd almost as infuriating. I go to op-ed pieces to read opinions, well argued and supported by a modicum of data. If I want wacky political satire I'll go see "Team USA".

Anyway. Having grown up in Washington DC, I have some recollection of the kinds of politically expansive dinner guests Brooks attempts to spoof in his latest column. ("It is only now that the dinner party lion emerges to stake his claim to greatness. While others quiver with pre-election anxiety, their mood rising and collapsing with the merest flicker of the polls, he alone radiates certainty.") However, I usually found these guests rather interesting. Perhaps that is because I actually enjoy political discussions. It is my sense that political discussions over dinner became rarer and rarer from 1985 to 2000 or so, as people began to feel that to raise a political subject at dinner was to be, as Brooks puts it, a "blowhard".

Perhaps this is why we've wound up saddled with a political universe full of morons.

Anyway, most of this column is really beneath discussion. However, there are a couple of revealing Brooksisms which are worth teasing out. First, take a look at the ridicule of the "dinner party lion"'s knowledge of electioneering minutiae:

"...he unfurls a series of impressive, counterintuitive but probably meaningless factoids: "You know, historically, polls conducted during the third week in September have proved to be more accurate in predicting the final result than ones conducted closer to Election Day." ...He runs through the bogus subdemographic groups that could swing the vote: cellphone-using creationists (undersampled by current survey methods) or African-American gun-owning deacons, who have been so intriguingly cross-pressured for several months."

One of Brooks's most consistent and immutable characteristics is his contempt for expertise in almost any field. I am particularly reminded of a column about two years ago in which he proclaimed that after attending a foreign-policy conference in the UK some years back, he had realized: "I don't believe in foreign policy." All those complicated ideas, all those complex political formulations, all those tentative theses which need to be supported by data! Who needs it? Just a bunch of mumbling bureaucrats and liberal perfessers. Right?

It's a startling thing to say you don't believe in foreign policy, but of course this is exactly the attitude which pervades current lumpen-GOP circles, as well as the Office of the Vice President and most of the Echo Chamber advisers closest to President Bush. The last 4 years have been an experimental trial of whether it's a good idea to turn the United States government over to people who don't believe in foreign policy, and the results of that trial are now in: the world hates us, our soldiers are being killed at about 10 a week, we're pouring money into a bottomless oil pit called Iraq, North Korea has half a dozen nukes pointed at California, and the self-satisfied smirk of Ariel Sharon looms over the smoking ruins of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, taking an occasional potshot at a Hamas teenager trying to launch a homemade rocket.

But to get back to this column, the subtext to the ridicule of someone who would try to back up his predictions about the election with actual data, particular detailed or complicated data, is that it is absurd or boorish to demonstrate in conversation that one is knowledgeable about an issue. This contempt for knowledge, for data, for expertise, and for intelligence in general is to be expected from Republicans, enemies of the "reality-based community" that they are. For Republicans, the proper place to discuss hard facts is in the corporate boardroom. The general public should be kept in a state of blissful ignorance, so that they can be persuaded to elect a chief executive they'd like to have a beer with - not one who might have intelligent, evidence-based policies on concrete issues.

Personally, given a choice between a beer with Geoerge Bush and dinner with a "blowhard" who's well versed in the minutiae of the current election, I'll take the blowhard anytime.

Then, there's Brooks's curious final point. "He must make sure his listeners do not recall that most voters have only the foggiest notions of what they are voting on. As a Cato Institute study reminds us, 70 percent of voters do not know about the new prescription drug benefit, 60 percent know little about the Patriot Act, and during the cold war, only 38 percent of voters knew that the Soviet Union was not a member of NATO.

"These facts suggest that in close elections, the results are a crapshoot, which would undermine the pundit's claim to expertise."

Does Brooks actually believe this? Brooks does occasionally display a fleeting openness to the possibility of uncomfortable facts which might require a substantial change in his thinking. For example, over the summer, he grudgingly and painfully began to acknowledge that things in Iraq were not going very well. He even began to try to seriously examine what the mistakes might have been which led to the quagmire, and what potential strategies offered the best hope of a way out. But such a serious investigation quickly proved too frustrating and complex for his whimsical, bullshit-prone rhetorical style, and he dropped the whole thing by late September.

In any case, if Brooks really does have such a dim view of the intelligence of the American electorate, it could have serious consequences not just for his view of the legitimacy of electoral support for President Bush, but for his entire weltaanschaung. Consequence 1: it seems pretty clear that anyone who thinks Americans don't understand what they're voting for is thinking primarily of Bush supporters. No one has identified large groups of voters who are just wild for Kerry but don't understand his positions on the issues; and in fact PIPA surveys show just the opposite - large majorities of Kerry supporters do know where he stands on the issues, while the majority of Bush supporters think he supports the International Criminal Court. For Brooks to address the issue of ignorance among American voters is to come perilously close to calling Bush supporters dumb.

But of course he'd never follow through to that logical conclusion.

Consequence 2: David Brooks has throughout his career proven himself incapable of sustaining a gloomy thought for more than 2.3 seconds. His whole tone is one of sleepy, fat and happy triumphalism: the average American is richer than 99.9 percent of the human beings who have ever lived, as his NYT Magazine cover story of summer 2003 put it. (This was another great moment in idiotic Brooks rhetoric - simple back-of-the-napkin demographics shows this figure to be impossible, off by an order of magnitude. But never mind.)

Of course the thesis that Americans are ignorant, yet successful, rich and happy, and that knowledge of facts is therefore not terribly important, is perfectly consistent with the Brooks oeuvre, which is basically an elaboration of Disraeli's thesis that God protects idiots, small children, and the United States of America. Still, if things continue to go demonstrably poorly over the next several years of a Bush second term, and Brooks sustains the suspicion that the American people are kind of dumb, is it possible that he might eventually, inexorably reach the inescapable conclusion that Americans are stoopid bad - and that ain't good?

Don't bet on it.

Sunday, October 24, 2004


The longer I work on this blog, and the more Brooks I grudgingly force myself to read, the more I come to realize that he seems to be two different columnists, appearing on different days. Sometimes Brooks's columns are surprisingly detached, mildly clever pieces of sociopolitical observation. More often, they're dunderheaded confabulations of nonsense built on clonkingly stupid presumptions, papered over with a veneer of middlebrow wit.

The most recent piece, though, is one of the tolerable ones. Brooks makes an observation that, as far as I know, hasn't been much fussed over in the media: the electorate's nearly fifty-fifty split year after year seems curiously detached from any of the concrete issues on which election campaigns are supposedly based. Either people are not basing their votes on the issues at hand, or their attitudes towards the issues at hand are actually determined by prior political loyalties; either way, the issues don't appear to be affecting people's politics. Brooks:

"Over the past four years, we've experienced a major terrorist attack, a recession, a dot-com shakeout, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, corporate scandals and an active and tumultuous presidency. We've had an influx of new citizens. Millions have died of old age, and tens of millions have moved to new towns and new states

"Yet the political landscape looks almost exactly the same. We're still divided right down the middle...Why does everything in America change except politics? That is the central mystery of this election."

This isn't a bad question to raise. The only problem is that Brooks then goes on to explain the abiding fifty-fifty split in a typically ham-handed, dull-witted manner. Viz.:

"First, partisanship...Human beings are tribal. When they find themselves in a closely fought contest with a rival group, they become ever more tightly bound to their tribe. They see reality in ways that flatter the group. They nurture the resentments that bind the group."

This is a very stupid explanation; it doesn't actually qualify as an explanation at all. Human beings have always been tribal, but American presidential elections have not always been split almost fifty-fifty. You can't explain a novel phenomenon by referring to a permanent condition; the permanent condition can't, by simple logic, have any explanatory value in accounting for the novel phenomenon. I'm sure classical rhetorics has a term for this error, but I don't know what it is. It does strike me, though, as the kind of error to which conservative thinkers are peculiarly prone, for some reason. Give me a few minutes and I'll try and think of some examples - I'm just sure I've seen Brooks and other conservative writers make exactly the same kinds of meaningless appeals to eternal nature in explaining novel, conditional, contemporary phenomena before. I don't know exactly why they would be particularly prone to that sort of logical error, except perhaps for a fondness for ideas about human nature being fixed and unchanging, whether genetic or God-given.

Ronald Reagan's famous notion that trees cause air pollution involves a somewhat similar failure of logic. (There have always been trees; air pollution is new.) But it's not quite the same thing. I'll keep thinking.

Anyway, Brooks's second explanation is at first less obnoxiously stupid. "We're in the middle of a leadership war," he writes. "Underneath all the disputes about Iraq, we're having a big argument about what qualities America should have in a leader. Republicans trust one kind of leader, Democrats another.

"Republicans, from Reagan to Bush, particularly admire leaders who are straight-talking men of faith. The Republican leader doesn't have to be book smart, and probably shouldn't be narcissistically introspective. But he should have a clear, broad vision of America's exceptional role in the world. Democrats, on the other hand, are more apt to emphasize such leadership skills as being knowledgeable and thoughtful. They value leaders who can see complexities, who possess the virtues of the well-educated."

This isn't bad, either, as far as it goes. Though I quibble with the use of the word "leader", which already, to my mind, sneaks in an implicit Republican bias. I think much of the time Democrats don't even particularly want "leaders"; we want good politicians and public servants. We don't need to be "led", we want our views represented in open, democratic debate, and we're comfortable with the idea of somewhat fractious polities that don't march in goose-step to the vision of a Glorious Leader. Republicans seem profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of dissent and of governance by compromise, not by unanimity.

But the more important point here is that the fact that Democrats and Republicans prefer different leadership styles doesn't actually explain in any way the fifty-fifty nature of the current political divide. As Brooks notes, Reagan and Mondale also epitomized the respective Republican and Democratic leadership styles, but Reagan walloped Mondale fifty-seven to forty-three. So what is Brooks writing about here? How does he think these different preferences in leadership styles contribute to the narrowness of the split in the electorate?

Here's Brooks's explanation: "It just so happens that America is evenly divided about what sort of leader we need." Which, obviously, is no explanation at all. "It just so happens"? What the hell is that? Brooks is supposed to be explaining a novel and disturbing phenomenon - the persistence of a fifty-fifty divide through two presidential elections, despite immense changes in the concrete issues the country faces. And his "explanations" for this phenomenon are irrelevant appeals, first to the eternal, and then to the arbitrary.

To be fair, Brooks's discussion of leadership styles does have some relevance to the question of why new events and issues don't seem to change the political map; he's saying that people are voting based on character, not issues. But why fifty-fifty? That's the question he's raising, and that's the question he then fails even to address, much less answer.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Update: looking silly even faster!

Hey, this is probably the quickest-acting wish-I-hadn't-written-that-one Brooks column yet! Within 48 hours of his "Kerry's slide in the polls due to overly harsh attacks" column, 2 new polls show the race tied - yesterday's Times/CBS poll, and today's Zogby/Reuters. To what will Brooks's next column attribute Kerry's miraculous recovery? A sudden and incredibly powerful dose of moderation? Or could he possibly be so intellectually dishonest as to ignore the issue? We're waiting, David...

Monday, October 18, 2004

Off the Leash

Sorry I've been away for a while - had a new baby. But I return to address a Brooks column which is simultaneously infuriating and content-free - so content-free that it seems scarcely worth the trouble to rebut it. Nonetheless, here goes.

The thesis of today's Brooks column is that the reason Kerry's daily tracking poll numbers have not improved over the past week, despite his generally acknowledged victory in the third presidential debate, is that he's spent the week attacking Bush too viciously. Brooks claims Kerry's attacks don't hold water, that voters recognize this, and that that's why his poll numbers aren't climbing. Brooks calls Kerry's campaigning "incompetent, crude and over-the-top".

Let's pretend for a moment we don't know that Brooks is acting as a flack for the Bush campaign, and take his piece seriously for a moment. What are these supposedly undisciplined and overly harsh Kerry smears?

1. "On Monday, Kerry told seniors in Florida that Bush is plotting a "January surprise" to cut their Social Security benefits by as much as 45 percent...As Kerry knows, that's ludicrous - it's a stale and transparent canard that Democrats have brought out in election after election, to less and less effect. President Bush has not entertained and would not entertain any plan that cut benefits to seniors."

President Bush has declared he intends to replace the current pay-as-you-go Social Security system with a system of tax-free retirement savings accounts. He has never explained where the money will come from to pay for current seniors' monthly checks when payments from current workers are deposited into their savings accounts, rather than paying for checks today. This trivial little mathematical oversight runs into the hundreds of billions of dollars per year. The US government is already out of money, so the only way to fund the switchover would be to reduce current seniors' checks.

Bush's promises not to reduce Social Security payments to seniors should thus be filed along with his promises during the 2000 campaing not to create deficits. They are lies. Brooks's argument here amounts to "Bush says he won't cut Social Security payments, so he won't." Why anyone should trust the fiscal promises of a president who promised a balanced budget 4 years ago, and has run up over $1 trillion of deficits since, is not clear.

2. "Kerry's second wild attack is that Bush would reinstate the draft. The administration, which hasn't even asked for trivial public sacrifices in a time of war, does not want to bring back the draft."

Brooks's evidence-free assertion that the administration doesn't "want to" bring back the draft is a pretty pointless rhetorical exercise. Whether or not the administration "wants to" bring back the draft is immaterial; the administration may not "want to" increase the US's $5 trillion debt ceiling either, but it doesn't have much choice. Bush is committed to a continuing confrontational and militaristic foreign policy which will entail ever-increasing commitments of US troops abroad, as far as the eye can see. At some point, Bush will either have to reinstate the draft or change his foreign policy - and changing policies in the face of difficult realities is something this administration does not do.

3. "Kerry's third attack is the whole Mary Cheney thing. That's been hashed over enough. But remarkably, Kerry has not apologized."

Brooks is forced to use the sleazy construction "the whole Mary Cheney thing" because if he described what it was that Kerry actually said, it'd be clear that it wasn't an "attack". Kerry said "I think that if you asked Dick Cheney's daughter Mary, who is a lesbian," whether she had known her sexual orientation since birth, she would say yes. Mary Cheney is an out lesbian. To describe her as one is not an "attack". Kerry was simply pointing out that there are out homosexuals on both sides of the aisle who feel their sexual orientation is part of their nature, not something learned.

The GOP is desperately trying to convince the American public that pointing out that some Republicans are homosexual is somehow sleazy. This is ridiculous. But they have managed to make enough hay in the press that they're no longer forced to actually repeat their absurd argument; they simply refer to "the whole Mary Cheney thing". Well, I think George Bush should lose the presidential race because of "the whole Iraq thing". How's that for reasoned argument?

4. "The fourth assault is Kerry's attack on the Bush administration's supposed "ban" on stem cell research. John Edwards's ludicrous statement that if Kerry was president, people like Christopher Reeve would be able to get up and walk was only the farcical culmination of a series of exaggerations about the possibilities of finding cures for Alzheimer's and spinal cord injuries."

Here's another dumb elision bereft of argument - "supposed 'ban'". It's unclear who used the word "ban", other than Brooks. But in any case, the charge is substantially true: scientists say they need more stem cell lines; the Bush admin says they can't have them. When Brooks calls Edwards's statement "ludicrous", he's simply insulting the hopes of everyone who needs help from the kinds of treatments stem cell research might provide.

What's really infuriating about this kind of tactic on Brooks's part is that he knows perfectly well what Edwards was trying to do with his statement: he was trying to illustrate, in a concrete fashion, the possible benefits which a certain rather abstract type of scientific research might provide. The real benefits of stem cell research are hard to predict, but the scientific consensus is that they are extremely promising in lots of different fields. What we're really talking about here is freedom of scientific inquiry versus know-nothing religious irrationalism and the maniacal evangelical cult of the foetus. But we all know voters often have trouble relating to claims made in complex or abstract terms - no one has ever won an election running on the freedom of scientific inquiry. It was Ronald Reagan who pioneered the technique of using concrete, folksy examples of individual people to illustrate the goals of complex policy decisions. Yet when Democrats try to use this technique, Republicans call the tying of complex policy initiatives to specific cases "ludicrous".

Okay, here's a thought: what adjective would you use to describe President Bush's linkage of the war in Iraq to the prospect of democracy and freedom in the Arab world? Does "ludicrous" come to mind?

In fact, it's telling that Brooks repeatedly uses the word "ludicrous" to describe Kerry's current campaign themes. Of course, if Al Gore had charged during the 2000 campaign that Bush's policies would result in a $420 billion deficit by 2004, Brooks would no doubt have called the accusation equally "ludicrous". Unfortunately, this administration is so nuts that when you describe what they're doing accurately, the description appears...ludicrous.